Thursday, 13 September 2012

Under Review by Zoë Sharp

Once again the thorny subject of reviews has raised its head in recent days―and particularly ugly it looks in the cold light of day, too. Reviewing has always been a matter of opinion, but up until relatively recently I always assumed it was, at least, the honest opinion of the reviewer, good or bad.


Not the case, it seems.


Most authors are delicate flowers and our fragile little egos are crushed by stinging criticism―especially the kind that’s doled out anonymously—but I try not to let unfavourable reviews affect me by the simple expedient of not reading them unless someone else has told me I really ought to.


Now, I fully admit this may seem like the Ostrich Method of Problem Solving (stick your head in the sand and hope the problem goes away by itself) but hey, it works for me. I read somewhere recently that writers take more criticism in a year than most people have to face in a lifetime, so a little avoidance occasionally is more than understandable, in my view.


But although critical reviews may hurt, that doesn’t mean I’d ever manufacturer glowing reports on my work. Nor would I ever take swipes at another writer from behind the safety of an online avatar.


That doesn’t mean I haven’t thought about it, but as far as I know they can’t lock you up for that—not yet, at least. The closest I’ve come to this form of BSP (Blatant Self-Publicity) was, some years ago, considering sending out books to people I knew who might possibly enjoy them on the proviso that, if they did, they might like to write a review somewhere.


This grand plan for world domination never made it past the consideration stage.


Mainly, I think, because I find it very difficult to solicit praise. It’s a little bit like my very first UK publisher. Two years after they’d been publishing my books, my editor had still not invited me out for coffee, never mind lunch. So much, I thought, for the wine-you-and-dine-you attitude that I’d been led to believe prevailed. Eventually, my agent at the time bullied her into it, which I felt rather defeated the object. After all, they should value their authors enough to do that kind of thing automatically. And if you have to beg, it’s surely not worth having.


I feel much the same way about reviews—if someone enjoys the book enough to say so spontaneously, that’s absolutely wonderful. But if you have to ask them to comment …


I found I simply couldn’t bring myself to do it.


When I launched my first e-book last year—the e-thology of Charlie Fox short stories—I gave away fifty copies via my newsletter list to people in the hopes that, if they enjoyed the collection they might be prepared to say so. But I didn’t chase them afterwards, despite being told I should, and I certainly didn’t specify that only effusively positive reviews were acceptable.


I can’t even rally support from the online community to vote down less-than-enthusiastic reviews on Amazon, as I know some authors do. If they’re genuine and not somebody hiding behind a pseudonym, then they’re entitled to say if they didn’t enjoy the book. As long as they don’t give away rampant plot spoilers, I shall deal with their criticism by the Ostrich Method mentioned above. C’est la vie.


As for the infamous sock-puppets that seem to be rife at the moment, the practice mystifies me. I know authors spend a lot of time listening to the voices in their heads—or, in my case, the people I keep locked in my basement—but that doesn’t mean I’d ever let them out in public. And I would find writing glowing reviews of my own work so cringingly embarrassing, never mind throwing rocks at other authors I considered my ‘rivals’.


What rivals? I mean, aren’t we all in this together? Unless you can churn out a book every couple of days, surely even the most prolific authors can’t write fast enough to keep a keep reader supplied all year round? In which case, isn’t it in every writer’s best interest to keep readers reading by recommending other similar books they might enjoy?


Ah … just me then.


The problem now is that I’ve been looking for a couple of non-book-related products—a mesh-lined shoulder bag for travelling, and a mosquito-repellent wristband. Some of the reviews on sites like Amazon claim they’re the best thing since the proverbial sliced bread. Others state they’re a total waste of money. Do I believe either, or are the good ones put-up jobs from paid reviews or employees of the manufacturer, and the bad ones spiteful digs from jealous rivals?




Not all criticism is a bad thing, of course. Sometimes it can be highly entertaining. I offer these examples as a case in point:


The first is the by-now infamous review of the hair-removal product Veet For Men, which has been viewed thousands of times and caused great amusement.


The second is the brilliant critique of the food on a Virgin flight from India, sent to Sir Richard Branson.


And finally, the hilarious reviews on the BIC For Her ballpoint pens.


So, Collective Crew, what are your opinions on reader reviews? Do you read them, write them, solicit them, take any notice? And what about other items, not just books? Have we come full circle and are back to word-of-mouth by trusted friends as the only true recommendation?


Or are all our friends in on the conspiracy, too …


This week’s Word of the Week is trichotillomania, meaning an abnormal desire to pull out one’s hair, from the Greek trich- the stem of thrix, meaning hair, and thus trichologist—the person who cuts your hair.


And finally, a little gentle BSP, if I may be so bold. I was honoured to be asked to contribute to the excellent MAKING STORY: Twenty-one Writers on How They Plot, available on both Amazon UK and Editor Timothy Hallinan has done a wonderful job of pulling all this disparate information together, and it should prove an invaluable resource.


See, when it’s other people’s work, I find it much easier to praise it!










  1. I'm with you on this emotive subject, Zoe. I've always found it difficult to blow my own trumpet, and rarely if ever 'ask' people to review my work. I certainly wouldn't review my own books, and definitely would not attack another author in the same way I've apparently suffered. Mentioning no names, it was brought to my attention that another thriller author, under a sockpuppet name, gave me some bad reviews while steering potential readers to their own work. His reviews have subsequently disappeared after they were brought to light, so I haven't read them. Such behaviour saddens me. I'm all for promoting the thriller genre, for the same reason you do, and find that bickering, spiteful tactics, and downright chicanery, doesn't help any of us. If our genre gets a good readership through choice of good books, then we all win.

    I'll confess here to something that I did when I was naive to the entire system. When my first book was coming out, I commented on the Waterstones site, but was up front and used my own name and said it was my own book, and only described the 'blurb'. Instead of appearing on 'the author's' page or whatever, it popped up on the customer reviews. But, it was quickly taken down again. Rightly so.

    Something odd and annoying that did happen to me was that I picked up a hater at book 1, who has subsequently returned to my follow up books to attack them too. He didn't review after the first book, but only in the comments on other people's reviews on subsequent books in the series. He accused genuine readers of being on my payroll, or being sycophantic followers who I'd put up to writing glowing reviews. He upset quite a few readers, but was then joined by others of his own ilk who also started having a go. One particular reviewer, who had subsequently become a friend of mine because he admired my books, was particularly lambasted. There's no room for behaviour like that. Either from authors or from readers. But that's the system, eh, and we have to live with it (do we?). Nowadays I barely look at reviews on Amazon, preferring your 'Ostrich' method.

    1. Hi Matt

      Hmm, I note you posted this under a pseudonym ... are you trying to tell me something? (Only kidding - honest!)

      I've found that telling people to their face what I think is far easier all round. I told one author at Harrogate that his behaviour around women came across as somewhat pervy. He looked a bit taken aback, but I'd rather shoot from the lip than say it behind his back, even if it gets me into trouble.

      This is why my Murderati blog is subtitled Changing Feet - because that's usually the only time I open my mouth.

      I'm really sorry you've had such bad experiences. Let's drink to the Ostrich Method next time we meet :)


  2. I've recently pulled down all my reviews. I am a fan of a certain famous author and had reviewed several of his books, at between 3 & 5 stars. I then started having my reviews of other authors attacked, on the basis that I was this famous author, since our writing styles were identical (I wish!!). None of my other reviews was below 3*....but who needs the hassle.
    Trouble is that the self righteous now seem to think that any favourable review of n author they dislike must be an alias.
    I think everyone need to stop worrying about this and go back to writing shit hot books. Cream will always rise to the top.

    1. Thanks, Reverend. What a weird state of affairs. I don't post very many reviews, and I confess that if I haven't enjoyed a book, I would rather not review it at all than post a bad review, however funny they can sometimes be (as per the examples I highlight above).

      I agree absolutely and will take your advice to ignore it and go back to the scribbling. Although, come to think of it, cream isn't the only thing that rises to the top, either ... :)


  3. This whole thing took me by surprise. Credulous as I am, it never occurred to me that the whole Amazon open-review structure (or those of B&N and even Yelp) was an invitation to fraud.

    I've been fortunate in that my reviews have generally been very good, but I think this issue will devalue those reviews in the eyes of readers. Perhaps the one bright spot as that when we get a real stinker of a review, we can make ourselves believe it's RJ Ellory.

  4. LOL Tim. What a lovely thought!

    Yeah, we should be much more world-weary and cynical, shouldn't we?

    Hey, perhaps we should collaborate on a new book - the Gullible Private Eye, who believes everything everyone says to him and would follow anybody down a dark alley with his gun on his hip and his coat buttoned, not just a particularly beautiful blonde ...

  5. I write reviews, I never read them, not unless they're reviews of computers and software, because they matter. If you choose to read a book based purely on a review then you're clearly among those wonderfully crazy people who believe all TV adverts are absolutely true. God help the world.

    1. Hi Kay

      LOL, so true! And you'd also be one of those people who thinks 'Reality TV' is NOT an oxymoron ...

      The problem comes when I start to distrust ALL reviews, for anything. Supposing those reviews of computers and software that you DO pay attention to are also written by paid employees or sock-puppets.



  6. I'm definitely a head in the sand author as well, Zoe! I find that it helps me get more writing done. And reading.

    Thanks for the shout out on our cool new book! Such an honor to be one of the 21 authors in MAKING STORY, which is chock full of great advice for how to go a book done.

  7. Thanks, Meredith. I just found a great quote from Harlan Coben saying "You know which writers have never had a bad review? Unpublished ones..."

    MAKING STORY was a lot of fun to take part in. Tim is my hero :)

  8. As a reviewer and someone who works very hard at reviewing I have been aghast at what has been going on. It is hard when you have built up a good reputation about reviewing not to want to chuck it all in. Believe me over the last couple of weeks i have thought about it. The only saving grace is the fact that any reviews of mine that are on Amazon (and I can count on one hand the number) will have already been on the website that I normally review at. It does however give genuine reviewers a bad name. All I want to do is to encourage people to read and point them in the direction of good books which don't have to be written by well-known authors but are just well written books. I may be a reviewer but I still consider myself to be first and foremost a reader.

  9. Hi Ayo

    Yours is one of the names I'd trust implicitly when it comes to reviews, so please don't give up. We need professional reviewers with your brand of integrity to help us all get through this mess!